Monday, September 05, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Week: An Introduction

Fifty years of Star Trek (1966-1969).

Just digest that sentence for a minute.

It's incredible to think about.

I was not present for the beginning of the journey.  In fact, I just missed it. 

I was not born until December 3, 1969, some months after NBC cancelled Gene Roddenberry's space adventure.  So I probably first encountered Star Trek in syndicated reruns circa 1973 or 1974.  

I loved the original series at first sight, in part because the first episode I watched ("Day of the Dove") happened to feature sword fights in it, and at age 4, sword fights were the greatest thing ever.

But soon I was in love with the crew of the starship Enterprise, and with that fine ship too.

As I grew older, I grew to love Star Trek not just for the swashbuckling sense of adventure, but for its ideas and philosophy. I know it is popular to dismiss Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), but to me seeing it for the first time was akin to a religious experience. 

I saw the movie when I was in fourth grade, and I was absolutely taken with the beauty of the Enterprise, the mystery of V'ger, and the possibility of a future in which "the human adventure is just beginning." I loved the vibe and feel of that movie. I felt like I was a passenger aboard a real starship.

I had to defend the movie, a lot, from my friends. They thought it was terrible, and said how much better Star Wars was.  In defending The Motion Picture, I began to truly detect how beautifully-rendered it was, even if I didn't change minds.

I have most recently re-watched the entire Star Trek original series this year -- at age 46 -- with my nine year old son, Joel.

I have had the amazing experiencing of seeing Star Trek through his eyes, for the first time, and this viewing has given me another wonderful perspective on this chapter of the franchise.

Joel loves the series (and refuses to watch Generations because Kirk dies...).  But he bounces up off his seat at moments of high excitement ("The Doomsday Machine," "Mirror, Mirror") or humor ("A Piece of the Action," and "The Trouble with Tribbles") in the series. He is taken with the Ceti eels, the Medusans, the Tribbles, and other aliens.  Spock is his favorite character.

Joel is watching Star Trek at about the age I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the concepts, the ideas, the execution, all resonate with him.  It doesn't matter that our society's computer capabilities in 2016 occasionally make Star Trek look antiquated.  It doesn't even matter that the series features some rampant sexism (though we have to talk about that when it comes up...)

By and large, in broad strokes, Star Trek got things right.

Not just right, but right for fifty years, and for multiple generations.

It got right the idea that we are all stronger together, because of our differences, not in spite of them.

It got right the idea that humanity can always make the right choice, selecting the better angels of its nature and not regressing into barbarism, nativism, racism or other hatreds.

And, we should note this too: Star Trek gave us a space travel lexicon that has widely been adopted by other franchises (including Star Wars). We all know what "warp speed," "photon torpedoes," "cloaking devices" and "tractor beams" are, don't we? Star Trek brilliantly made those concepts familiar to TV audiences.

It gave TV and film a common nomenclature for the future.

And of course, Star Trek gave us so many great characters.  But it gave us, most importantly, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  Arguably one of the five most important characters in television history, (along with Archie Bunker or Mary Richards, to name two). Spock, in his outsider position, has always allowed us to see ourselves clearly.  The picture is not always flattering.

Spock has made us question the things we sometimes take for granted, or explain the things about humanity that we would rather not explain.  He has also been a voice for those of a marginalized co-culture here, in the 20th or 21st century. He alone understands what it means to be an "alien" among humans on the Enterprise, and he often takes the side of those who are as marginalized as he must sometimes feel ("The Way to Eden.") Furthermore, Spock, by growing and changing over the years, reminds us that "change is the essential process" of all life ("Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.")

The same is true of Captain James T. Kirk. I watched him as a kid, and I wanted to be him. William Shatner's Kirk epitomized, to my young mind, American masculinity.

Tough and brave, loyal and resourceful, he was an idol for the man I dreamed of becoming. Today, I am more a Spock-type than a Kirk-type, but that's okay.  I still love James T.

At my age, I enjoy watching Kirk deal with "growing old" especially in the Star Trek movies, and love how the character deals with ";" the big things.  Like Spock, Kirk evolves and lives a full life in the mythos. He sometimes makes mistakes, but that's part of the human condition.

As I wrote above, Since I was four or so, Star Trek has been a major part of my life, and every time I have watched it, I have gleaned something new and valuable from these "old" (classic) 79 episodes.

At different times the series has meant different things to me, but it has been a constant influence, and a constant source of inspiration and wisdom.  I am glad, beyond measure, that Star Trek -- at least at this stage -- is also there for my son.

When other programs and movies -- and the world itself -- seems to flirt with deadly dystopia and apocalypse, Star Trek has been a constant voice saying "there are days ahead worth living for."

It reminds us that we have the agency -- if we have the heart -- to build a future of greatness. A future of empathy and love; of exploration and excitement.  Of friendship and diversity.

This week on the blog, I'll devote space to Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.  I'll leave it there, for now, with one last birthday wish.

Live Long and Prosper Star Trek. Your adventure (and ours...) is still just beginning.


  1. Sheri9:28 AM

    Fifty freaking years! Fifty years of nearly continuous TV exposure, conventions, zines, novels, movies, fan fiction, and obsessions over canon minutiae. You know, I think the closest equivalent of the Star Trek cultural reach was probably Sherlock Holmes, another fictional universe that not only spawned a full-bore fandom that expanded and lived on, but also touched the real-world in ways A.C. Doyle never imagined. Building on Poe's observant investigator unraveling a mystery, Doyle managed to create a duo so captivating that readers placed themselves willingly in that universe and insisted that it never end. And with the advent of that cultural impact, Holmes fiction ultimately led to the very idea of criminology as "science": evidence analysis, fingerprinting, chemical analysis, and methodical investigation of details.

    Both Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes caused vast numbers of people to ponder a future in which "it must be possible to do this", which is a simple but bottomless wellspring of ideas. People have been trying to actually implement Star Trek for half a century. May we all keep trying.

    One thing I think gets mentioned too rarely, though it seems obvious, is the cross-cultural impact of the Gemini and Apollo programs. The fact that we were watching an actual space program develop to encounter the unknown, with all of its attendant problems, made it all surreally alive! Remember, the Apollo I disaster occurred in midst of Star Trek season 1 on January 27, 1967. Men died horrifically in service to the future, and it suddenly seemed necessary to imagine it wasn't all for naught, that we were going to *get there*, we were going to aim for the stars and make it. I think this is probably the biggest reason Star Trek was elevated above mere fantasy in our collective consciousness.

  2. John wonderful thoughts on STAR TREK. Fifty years is simply amazing. Star Trek has always been my absolute favorite in science-fiction television a very close second only to Space:1999(1975-77). The original eleven foot Enterprise is in the Smithsonian because this series was and is still relevant. For myself, as a boy on Friday December 7th 1979 Star Trek:The Motion Picture (1979) was a religious experience too. I have always liked the Kirk era of Star Trek the best whether it is Shatner or J.J. Abrams with Chris Pine.


  3. A lucid summary of Star Trek's perennial appeal for the past
    half a century, a show that, at its best, offered us a rational
    and humanistic vision of our possible future.

  4. John,
    Beautifully written and eloquently stated sentiments regarding Star Trek. Thank You for this.
    My childhood (as you may be aware by now) was absorbed by Lost In Space, but Trek was ever-present and gradually earned my affections. I, too, first experienced it in syndication, and have many fond memories associated with watching the series with family and friends.
    I've also touched upon seeing Star Trek - The Motion Picture and how profound it was for me at the time. This past summer, I was able to see Star Trek Beyond with the same friend with whom I had seen The Motion Picture in 1979. Upon the closing credits of Beyond, I turned to my friend and said "Do you realize that we've been watching Star Trek for almost our entire lives?" A woman sitting nearby overheard and smiled at this statement; I'm pretty sure she concurred.
    It's really remarkable to think about how Roddenberry was able to create a legacy that continues, and a message that remains relevant even today.
    This point was brought home during a recent screening of 2009's Star Trek film at the Hollywood Bowl, with a live performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. All around me were seated people of every race, creed, color and age. The message still has resonance, and gains strength in difficult times.
    Here's to 50 more years.